If Bob Dylan says that money doesn’t talk, it swears, Knives Out confirms that sentiment as a subversive black comedy that aims straight for the heart of the Trump administration. At the very least, it’s populated by the type of people who have either turned a blind eye to his treachery, or willingly and enthusiastically gone along with his inhumane border policies. Even those who might be repelled by Trump’s behavior will cite a “strong economy” as the reason for their loyal support. Probably no one really wants to get too deep in the weeds with politics when it comes to the Oscars, but just as the reign of George W. Bush and his reckless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan led to some of darkest films to win in the Best Picture race since the 1970s (The Departed in 2006, No Country for Old Men in 2007, and the last of these, The Hurt Locker in 2009) Trump’s long shadow covers almost everything on the cultural landscape.
So sure, in a world of bizarre alternative realities, where conservatives can mock the truth uncovered by legitimate journalists but buy into the lies that their own right-wing news network spoon-feeds them, Trump is defended at all costs. The moment these people figure out what Knives Out is about, at its core, we can expect the defensive push-back — and the same goes for other films this year that pin Trump and his circus of hate under glass – like Jojo Rabbit for sure, and Bombshell, and arguably Joker (though I think the latter’s message is deftly left open to interpretation). Certainly Parasite taps deep into the same vein — even if made for and about South Korea, its universality hits home, because the same plague has spread worldwide.
It is kind of funny that so many are pearl-clutching about Jojo Rabbit because it dares to make fun of Hitler — even though we all make fun of Trump as practically a full-time job daily. So what some might say is, “Oh, Trump is not that bad. He’s not as bad as Hitler” — well, even if he’s only half as bad as Hitler then it’s time for Democrats to get their ducks in a row, and if he not nearly as bad as Hitler then what are we worried about? Jojo Rabbit is a film perfectly attuned for our time, because it absolutely frames fascism and its most recent uprising into the realm of the absurd, where it belongs — meanwhile reminding us that its absurdity makes it no less a catastrophic threat. And yet we have people clucking about like chickens in a hen house because the movie dares to illustrate how quickly the most comical bigotry can lead to hate-fueled genocide.
Knives Out lives on the same planet as Jojo Rabbit — it’s high-concept satire that does not go easy on upper-class power, skewing those with the most money, those who are happy to exploit “the help” when it suits their needs but have a much harder time treating them as actual people. Knives Out, like Jojo Rabbit, works as a “fun time at the movies” but look deeper and we see that both films have something very powerful to say to us all right now: be careful of the duplicity that we allow to go on right under our noses.
Parasite lifts the same theme to operatic levels, while being very specific about the clash of late stage capitalism vs socialism in its allegiance to a state that disregards the rights of its neediest citizens. Like Knives Out, like Jojo Rabbit, it’s gasp-laugh funny — but it too delivers a hard message about how those who have wealth simply don’t see, don’t even care to know, the underclass that serve as workhorses and scapegoats so that the upper class can thrive.
Joker plays around with taking the same inequalities to horrific extremes and in so doing becomes frighteningly disturbing. The deeper irony of the phenomena that Joker has become is that this is a movie that cautions us not to make heroes out of bad guys but somehow, it seems, millions of people have made Joker into a hero anyway. The film begins as reflection of society’s ills, and ends up being a prophesy by mirroring back what ended up happening. While it may or may not be a direct indictment of current right-wing extremist attitudes, it’s certainly another portrait of our culture of oblivious winners and disaffected losers and how we just don’t see the losers — until it’s too late. Tellingly, Joker is set in 1981, at the dawn of the proto-Trumpian Reagan era.
Though Joker is mostly careful avoid racial minefields, in Knives Out and in Jojo Rabbit, the oppression on display is not so much a class issue — it is an ethnicity issue. It is a “illegals” issue and a “final solution” issue. It is, without a doubt, a white supremacy vs. “the other” issue. That this aspect bubbles up in each of these films to strike a chord worldwide is a reminder that America has no monopoly on white nationalist hostility.
As we’re witnessing once again this week, Trump has a feral instinct for deploying smoke and mirrors. He keeps us distracted by throwing out crumbs to a clickbait/controversy starved media and we who plug into that feedback loop are similarly distracted. What’s today’s clickbait trauma that we’re gonna hashtag our way through? What will CNN be compelled to broadcast non-stop? Oh, right — beating back the lie that his blatant extortion is a hoax and that orderly impeachment is an “unconstitutional” witch hunt.
And what of the 70,000 children he has torn apart from their parents? Some of them never to be reunited? What of the outrage over a president who denigrates desperate immigrants from Latin countries as drug lords, gang members, rapists, and murderers? What of the disease spread by such a “leader” that manifests in hate crimes against Jews and Muslims, Latinos and African-Americans increasingly on the rise?
What to make of a media culture where such atrocities feel long-forgotten, too stale for the news cycle to cover. Here, my friends, is where artists step in to fill the void.
What I love about movies are their enduring power to observe, and show, and illuminate, and preserve snapshots of society for posterity. The last thing anyone needs right now is to hear another political pundit lecture us about how bad Trump is. No one wants to hear that same tune hummed in the air-spaces between hamburger and heartburn commercials. But movies can create complex narrative structures that do more than simply pin our various problems to a single scoop-du-jour. Detaching our worrisome symptoms from the daily churn of headaches can have a lasting effect on how we relate to others, how we react to what we hear. Movies — the best of them — can splash the holistic big picture on screens from coast to coast, reaching people who don’t have their trigger finger on the channel changer. They can excite our sense of urgency and halt our slip into complacency that allows terrible things to happen on our watch.
On it’s surface, Knives Out is a who-done-it. It is a funny, Agatha Christie-like mystery that takes place in a big house where everyone is a likely suspect. Beneath that premise, it’s a portrait of a family of greed-driven individuals, all out for themselves, They are thieves, and murderers, and liars, using their privilege for self-preservation, at any cost. Like Rian Johnson’s Looper, this is a films leaves it’s characters with a choice — choose to lead with kindness or choose to lead with cruelty. Just be prepared to reap the consequences as well as the rewards.
Knives Out, like Jojo Rabbit, isn’t preachy — nor, for all its broad humor, is it cornball — but it hits the right notes at the right times to make its point and to say things with satire that land on us harder and stick with us longer because we are immersed in its entertaining story.
If the scalpel-sharp films this year — Knives Out, Jojo Rabbit, Parasite, and Joker — are any indication of the kind of subversive cinema we’ll be seeing for the next few years, they will leave a legacy that cinema history will hold in high esteem. No doubt, once the professional gripers catch on, people like Tomi Lahren will complain about “liberal Hollywood propaganda” and cite these works of art to explain why no one goes to the movies anymore, and blah blah blah. But you know what? Anyone who shuns movies like these for butthurt political reasons will be missing out on lessons that elucidate and elevate the rest of us. We get smarter while they get dumber, and maybe that’s how we win the battle in the long run. Either way, films like these exemplify the here and now and will serve as a historical record as some of the best armor that America, and the world, relied on to fend off the worst that 2019 could throw at us.
As far as the Oscar race goes, that’s always a different question. As previous years have proven, we don’t know which way the coin tosses will flip until they land — whether feel-good films will resonate or those that speak to the angst and anger and pain of the moment. It’s such a competitive year and there are so many films that exist on different planes of reality. Movies that help us remember what life was like before Trump, and movies that warn us what life will be like if we don’t overcome the hate he’s ushered in.